How ‘stubborn, competitive’ Herring made Ulster history

Born in Cape Town. Forged in Ulster.

Rob Herring made history on Friday as the hooker became the most-capped player in Ulster’s long history as he took to the field for the province for the 230th time.

When he arrived as a 22-year-old in Belfast in 2012 it seemed unlikely that he would forge such a legacy but with hard work and self-proclaimed “stubbornness”, he has not only become an Ulster legend but an Ireland Grand Slam winner too.

“When I started here I never thought I’d have that record,” Herring, 33, said after his landmark appearance in Ulster’s 21-14 win over Irish rivals Munster on Friday.

“It’s strange, isn’t it? I was thinking about it during the week. I came over as a young lad chasing my dream to be a pro rugby player.

“It’s been a great journey so far. I look back over the years and we’ve had some unbelievable moments, I’ve had some unbelievable team-mates, Belfast is a great place to live.

“It’s been brilliant, I love playing for this province. I’ve a few more years in me yet hopefully but I’m loving my time at the moment.

“We’ve really enjoyed it here. I didn’t in my wildest dreams think I’d be in this position when I first arrived 11 years ago, yet here we are.”

Originally brought in to provide competition for Nigel Brady and Niall Annett, who were understudies to Irish hooker Rory Best, Herring quickly established himself as a fan favourite in Belfast.

International honours would follow as he made his debut for Ireland, who he qualifies for through his Belfast-born grandfather, in the summer tour of Argentina in 2014.

It began a journey in green that has earned him earn 39 caps. He’s proven to be a man for the big occasion too, as he scored a crucial try in Ireland’s historic Test series win in New Zealand and was a Grand Slam winner with Ireland in the 2023 Six Nations. Not bad going for a young kid with a dream.

“When I first came here, I had to really learn to be a professional, looking after the body, getting myself ready for every game.

“It’s weird because when you’re in the thick of it, you’re not looking too far ahead or far back.

“I think it’s a bit of my mentality. I’m a bit stubborn, I’m competitive. Those attributes have probably kept me on the pitch at times, got me in the team and kept me there.

“I’ve still a few more years in me and I’ll be stubborn until the end.”

‘Friendly fire’ with Stewart

Herring’s landmark appearance came against Munster as he, along with fellow veteran Iain Henderson and debutant prop Scott Wilson, was introduced in the 50th minute to help inspire a comeback against their Irish rivals.

Before the game, Herring was presented with his record-breaking jersey by his young daughter, Milly and wife Nicola in the changing room. He admitted he had “no idea it was happening” and that the occasion had made him emotional.

Fittingly Herring, making his return to domestic action after the World Cup, was the man who made the match-defining intervention as he produced the crucial turnover in the dying seconds as Munster hammered the Ulster line in search of a late equalising try.

“It wasn’t about me, it’s about the team, just doing the best I can and helping us get the win.

“I was so tired, you’re just thinking, ‘let’s try and end this game’. Luckily I saw a guy with a weak body position at the ruck and I got to counter-ruck and get the turnover.

“I think that fight together is what we’re all about. We talk about our connections and the guys showed it in full force at the end of the game.

“I think they showed what it means to play for this team.”

After the competition with Best for a starting jersey when he first arrived in Northern Ireland, the tables have turned and Herring is now having to battle to stave off the up and coming Tom Stewart, who has made a big impression after breaking into the team last season.

Stewart, 22, has spoken of his intention to cement his place as Ulster’s starting hooker but says he is continuing to learn off Herring, who just “keeps getting better”.

At the age of 33, Herring says having Stewart pushing for the starting jersey gives him extra motivation to continue.

“I see areas where I can help him and there’s areas where I can learn from him.

“We’ve a good working relationship, we want to challenge each other, push each other on.

“He’s a young lad, an incredibly talented player and he’s got the right mentality as well.

“He has a big future and part of me sees that I need help him on his journey but we’re competing. It’s friendly fire but we’ll push each other on and keep getting better.”